The Future of Test-Optional Policies

It’s all about the rankings. It’s always been all about the rankings.

Loyal readers of our college admissions blog know that we believe test-optional policies, which were implemented at the vast majority of highly selective universities this year in response to test cancelations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, aren’t worth the paper they are written on. It is our unwavering position that, all else being equal, a student with great test scores will always have an advantage over students who don’t submit test scores at most highly selective universities. And it’s not as though we only recently asserted our position on test-optional policies. Years before elite universities went test-optional in response to the pandemic, there existed a short list of test-optional elite colleges. The most notable among these schools was the University of Chicago. But, as we have long argued, test scores not only matter to test-optional schools — they matter even more than at test mandatory schools. Curious to learn why?

Test Scores Influence College Rankings in Typical Years

It all comes down to college rankings. You know…the thing that college admissions officers have for so long claimed not to care about 🙄. And which annual college ranking matters most of all? That would of course be the US News & World Report college ranking, which we like to call the kingpin of the rankings. So why do test scores matter even more at test-optional colleges? Well, in a typical year (not including this past year), US News incorporates test scores into its college ranking — even if the school is test-optional. This means that students who do submit scores to test-optional schools are simply bigger fish in a smaller pond. Put simply, their scores matter even more because they more heavily influence the college’s ranking being as at least 25% fewer students submitted scores. Yes, in a typical year, US News assigns a penalty of 15% to test-optional schools to try to offset colleges essentially trying to manipulate the rankings with test-optional policies. But, make no mistake, those scores nonetheless still influence the rankings and, yes, colleges go to great lengths to manipulate the rankings. They have for years — irrespective of how vocally and how vociferously they may deny it.

US News Incorporates Test Scores in Its Rankings for All Universities in Typical Years

As Bill Conley and Bob Massa write in a piece for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The Decline of Testing Affects More Than Testing,” “U.S. News has been particularly skeptical about colleges’ motivation to operate a test-optional admissions process. For example, because weak test takers will disproportionally opt out of submitting test scores, colleges can generate a stronger testing profile by excluding them. For colleges whose entering class includes more than 25 percent nonsubmitters, U.S. News applies a penalty (the SAT/ACT percentile distribution value used in the rankings is discounted by 15 percent) to hedge against profile manipulation. While it is too early to tell how many more colleges will report fewer than 75 percent test submitters in the next ranking cycle (and beyond), the U.S. News wheels must be turning as to how its formula will adapt.”

The Future of Test-Optional Policies is Thus in the Hands of a Magazine

So what’s the future of test-optional policies? Will test-optional policies exist at the vast majority of our nation’s elite universities as an enduring legacy of this pandemic? Maybe. Maybe not. We suspect that many elite universities will remain test-optional in the years to come but ultimately it’s likely US News that sits in control of the decision because how US News incorporates test-optional policies into its rankings will, in our view, determine how elite colleges respond. Will test-optional schools be slapped with a 15% penalty in future rankings? Will test-optional schools face no penalty at all? The future of optional policies rests with this decision.

 
 

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